EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece – contributed with permission by author Jeff Bell – was originally printed in Psychology Today www.PsychologyToday.com in December 2021 with the title “What the Pandemic Has (Re)Taught Me About Purpose.”
I have a confession to make – a rather humbling one.
For more than a decade, I’ve been writing and speaking about what I’ve come to call “Greater Good motivation.” I’ve shared with countless audiences how finding purpose and being of service saved me from the depths of OCD and depression. I even co-founded a national nonprofit–The A2A Alliance–to showcase the power of turning adversity into advocacy.
But I have to be honest with you. Somewhere in the thick of this pandemic, I managed to lose sight of all that; and, as I did, I began losing my own motivation. Ultimately, I lost my compass for navigating life’s challenges.
Admitting this isn’t easy for me, and I’ve been putting off writing this post for months. My inner critic loves nothing more than to scream Fraud! at me whenever I fail to practice what I preach. And in this case, I failed miserably. Still, there are lessons to be learned from my pandemic journey, and I hope to share them with you here.
About a year ago, I found myself at a local restaurant, having breakfast with my dear friend Lee. We were sitting at a table waiting for our meals and catching up. We talked about work and our families and our shared passion for sailing And then, after a pause, Lee narrowed his eyes and leaned forward.
“So … how are you, Jeff?” he asked, with the knowing concern of a longtime confidant.
“Oh, I’m doing fine,” I lied.
Lee tilted his head and said nothing. A few seconds passed in awkward silence.
And then I lost it. First my eyes, then my cheeks, and soon my napkin grew wet with the gushing waterworks I could no longer hold back.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered between poorly muffled sobs, wondering just how much attention I must be attracting.
“How can I help?” Lee asked.
I couldn’t speak at that moment; and even if I could, I was certain I had no answers.
All I knew was that my anxiety was through the roof–over Covid concerns, yes, but mostly from unrelated OCD obsessions. And despite knowing better, I was giving into my compulsions time and again.
Check. Ruminate. Seek reassurance. Avoid.
Ruminate. Avoid. Seek reassurance. Check.
I was out of control. And, with each passing day, I was growing more depressed and less motivated. Working from home, I watched as my world shrank and grew darker.
Sensing I was not going to be contributing much to this conversation, Lee decided to ask a follow-up question:
“Do you think maybe you need to help some people out there?”
Lee, a lawyer by trade, but a mentor by nature, knew what he was doing. He had helped me create A2A out of nothing way back when, and he’d seen its empowering impact on so many–including all of us working to keep it going.
“I hear there’s something to this whole notion that we help ourselves by helping others,” Lee added, citing our nonprofit’s tagline, as a pronounced grin took form on his face.
And there it was: the metaphorical two-by-four “knock to the noggin” I apparently needed.
A Turning Point
That evening, for the first time since the world began shutting down, I took stock of how the pandemic had impacted both me and my advocacy. I was among the lucky, really; neither I nor anyone in my closest circles had been sickened by the virus. I still had a job and robust resources all around me.
But, like so many others in the advocacy world, I had lost many of the means I’d come to count on for reaching out to others and making an impact. No longer could I visit schools in person or give talks at conferences. A2A events were out, and new logistics challenges forced me to shut down a long-running series of advocate profile features.
Maybe because this all happened gradually, I didn’t realize along the way how it was impacting me. Like the proverbial frog in slowly heating water, I failed to grasp that this was not going to end well.
But then Lee asked his question, and I had to face some tough answers and make sense of them.
They were right there in front of me, those answers, in the form of this Venn diagram I’d created some years back to help explain the power of turning adversity into advocacy.
Purpose Lost and Found
The magic of adversity-driven advocacy works like this: By being of service to others with similar challenges, we apply our empathy in a way that provides a powerful sense of purpose and fuels our resilience.
When I’d allowed my advocacy to slip away, I stopped being of service to others, and quickly squandered my sense of purpose. Without the latter, I lost my resilience and then lost my way.
The good news? I could find new means to be of service again, reclaim my sense of purpose, and rebuild my resilience.
So that’s what I did. Slowly but surely, I challenged myself to find creative ways to get my advocacy back on track. I redoubled my commitment to getting A2A through the pandemic. And I promised myself I would share this very story.
This post represents my promise kept. And I hope you will take from it the same reminder that Lee gave me – that we really can find purpose through service, and we really do help ourselves by helping others.
IMPORTANT: Throughout my recovery from mental health challenges–early on and most recently–I have made use of professional resources. I truly believe that there is no substitute for these. And for anyone in crisis, I strongly recommend you follow these guidelines from the National Institute of Mental Health. Help is out there. And so too is hope!
Jeff Bell is an author, mental health advocate, and longtime journalist. His two books, Rewind, Replay, Repeat and When in Doubt, Make Belief, have established Bell as a leading voice for mental health awareness and “Greater Good” motivation. Bell served for eight years as a national spokesperson and board member for the International OCD Foundation; and in 2011, he co-founded the nonprofit A2A Alliance, aiming to showcase and foster the power of turning adversity into advocacy. Before retiring from radio, Bell spent nearly 18 years co-anchoring the KCBS Afternoon News in San Francisco.